SATURDAY READING: Wisdom by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham

Wisdom by Ernest Kurtz & Katherine Ketcham

From Experiencing Spirituality

Wisdom begins in wonder.
(Edith Hamilton)

The Master argued with no one, for he knew that what the arguer sought was confirmation of his beliefs, not the truth.

He once showed them the value of an argument:

“Does a slice of bread fall with the buttered side up or down?”

“With the buttered side down, of course.”

“No, with the buttered side up.”

“Let’s put it to the test.”

So a slice of bread was buttered and thrown up in the air.  It fell buttered side up.

“I win!”

“Only because I made a mistake.”

“What mistake?”

“I obviously buttered the wrong side.”

Very often, argument is of little use.  This is especially true when there is no clearly defined standard of evidence.

A Chicago matron was once seated next to Mrs. Cabot at a Boston dinner.  During the crisp exchange of conversation, Mrs. Cabot advanced the information that “in Boston, we place all our emphasis on breeding.”

To which the Chicago matron responded: “In Chicago, we think it’s a lot of fun, but we do manage to foster a great many outside interests.”

An artist who wanted a home among the hills of Vermont was talking the matter over with a farmer who allowed that he had a house for sale.  “I must have a good view,” said the artist.  “Is there a good view?”

“Well,” drawled the farmer, “from the front porch yuh kin see Ed Snow’s barn, but beyond that there ain’t nuthin’ but a bunch of mountains.”

One rather simple schema helps when we are confronted with confusing, because insufficiently explained, language or thought.  Our schema is ancient and enduring.  It is the distinction between Knowledge or Intelligence and Wisdom or Understanding.  Each, let it be noted, can be an entity or a process – this is why we need two terms to delineate the product and practice of each.

Most people are more familiar and therefore comfortable with knowledge.  It is, after all, our usual way of understanding reality.  So let’s begin with a few introductory notes on wisdom.  Wisdom was defined/explained by the concentration camp-surviving psychiatrist Viktor Frankl as “knowledge plus: knowledge – and the knowledge of its own limits.”  Wisdom, it has also been suggested, is what sages and saints have always sought both to gain and to teach – the way of thinking distilled from the lives of saints and sages.

And so to our ten-point schema.

1. Knowledge seeks to collect facts, data – to amass a “body of knowledge.”  It is concerned with technique and focuses on push forces, efficient causality.  Knowledge’s “Why?” really asks, “How?”

Wisdom is concerned with meaning, and thus with “value.”  It searches for pull forces, final causality.  Wisdom’s “Why?” asks, “Wherefore? To what end?” seeking reasons rather than “causes.”

. . . the humanness of human behavior cannot be revealed
unless we recognize that the real “cause” of a given individual’s

behavior is not a cause but, rather, a reason. . . . What, then,
is the difference between causes and reasons? If you
cut onions – you weep. Your tears have a cause.
But you have no reason to weep. . . .
(Viktor Frankl)

The person who knows “how” will always have a job.
The person who knows “why” will always be his boss.
(Diane Ravitch)

Emphasizing action as to get away from something rather than to go toward something, to compensate for a lack rather than to seek to realize an aim, Helen Merrell Lynd has pointed out, “leaves no room for curiosity, thought, sympathy, tenderness, love, as well as humor.”

As Mohandas Gandhi stepped aboard a train one day, one of his shoes slipped off and landed on the track.  He was unable to retrieve it as the train started rolling.  To the amazement of his companions, Gandhi calmly took off his other shoe and threw it back along the track to land close to the first shoe.  Asked by a fellow passenger why he did that, Gandhi replied, “The poor man who finds the shoe lying on the track will now have a pair he can use.”

2. Knowledge is primarily a method; it seeks and attains truth by experiment and aims at exactness, focusing on quantity, asking “How much?”  Knowledge produces experts.

Wisdom is a vision.  It seeks truth by understanding, is concerned with adequacy, and focuses on qualities.  Wisdom questions “What kind of?” and produces artists.

Statistics are like bikinis: what they show is
suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.

(Aaron Levenstein)

When one has no character, one has to apply method.
(Albert Camus)

Sam Levinson tells the story of the birth of his first child.

The first night home the baby would not stop crying.  His wife frantically flipped through the pages of Dr. Spock to find out why babies cry and what to do about it.  Since Spock’s book is rather long, the baby cried for a long time.

Grandma was in the house, but since she had not read books on child rearing, she was not consulted.  The baby continued to cry until Grandma could stand it no longer and she shouted downstairs, “For Heaven’s sake, Sarah, put down the book and pick up the baby!”

This zeal for uncriticizable statements and precisely verifiable
measurements should certainly be encouraged, but not
without warning that in pursuing Certainty, the Absolute, one is
likely to leave Man, the thinking reed, forsaken in the rear. . . .
“You can’t make a leaf grow by stretching it.”
Helen Merrell Lynd

Once there was a poor, blind, old man, and he and his wife had no children.  He had a hard life, but the man never complained.  One day Elijah came to him as he was sitting by the river, and he said, “Even though your life has been hard, you never complained, so God will grant you one wish.”  The poor man smiled.  “What a wish?  I’m blind, I’m poor, and I am childless.  How will one wish satisfy all my problems?  But give me twenty-four hours and I’ll come back with a wish.”

So he went home and told his wife what had happened.  She smiled at him and said, “Eat well and sleep soundly, for I know what you should wish.”  (Now think: What would he wish for? Remember the problem: He’s blind, he’s poor, he’s childless.)

Here’s his wish.  He came back the next day and he said to Elijah, “I wish to see my children eat off golden plates.”

The wish was granted, and the man and his wife lived happily for the rest of their days.

3. Knowledge can be and must be added to, even replaced; it advances.  We find knowledge in textbooks or articles that we read once, perhaps use, and then may “refer to.”

Wisdom is less added to than deepened.  We find it in “classics,” works that we reread and ponder because we change more than they do.  With each new reading and pondering, we have a sense of profiting because we have “seen them before.”

An old country doctor was celebrated for his wisdom.  “Dr. Sage,” a young man asked, “how did you get so wise?”

“Weren’t hard,” said the doc, “I’ve got good judgment.”

“Well, Doc, how does one get good judgment?”

“That’s easy, said Doc Sage.  “Good judgment comes form experience.  And experience – well, that comes from having bad judgment.”

Nobody ever reads the same book twice.
Robertson Davies

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s son, Julian, also an author, was mistaken for his father by an adoring fan.  “Oh, Mr. Hawthorne,” she cried, “I’ve read The Scarlet Letter, and I think it’s a real masterpiece.”

“Oh, that,” Hawthorne replied, dismissing the book with a wave of his hand, “that was written when I was only four years old.”

A classic is a book that has never
finished saying what it has to say.

Italo Calvino

4. Knowledge gives answers: one “possesses” knowledge, and therefore can sell/merchandise it.

Wisdom suggests new perspectives on ultimate questions: one does not “possess” it but rather is possessed by it.  Those who claim to sell wisdom are regarded as charlatans.

When we ask the ultimate questions, whether about
the direction of our own lives or about the meaning of
existence, the outcome of thinking is not an answer but
a transformed way of thinking, not propositions to assent
to but heightened power of apprehension.

Helen Merrell Lynd

One never “possesses” his story, any more than one “possesses” an
identity or a faith: in each case, one is rather possessed by it.

Ernest Becker

The History of Medicine
2010 BC – Here, eat this root.
1000 AD – That root is heathen. Here, say this prayer.
1850 AD – That prayer is superstition. Here, drink this potion.
1940 AD – That potion is snake oil. Here, swallow this pill.
1980 AD – That pill is ineffective. Here, take this antibiotic.
2010 AD – That antibiotic doesn’t work anymore. Here, eat this root.

“What we call basic truths are simply the ones
we discover after all the others.”

Albert Camus

5. The source of Knowledge is leisure, either the possession of it or the desire for it.

The source of Wisdom is suffering.  As Aeschylus first (as far as we know) dramatized, “Wisdom’s price is suffering, and it is always paid unwillingly although sent in truth as a gift from the gods.”

Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls;
the most massive characters are seared with scars.

Edwin Hubbell Chapin

There is an ancient tribal proverb I once heard in
India. It says that before we can see properly we
must first shed our tears to clear the way.
Libba Bray

But a mermaid has no tears, and therefore
she suffers so much more.
Hans Christian Andersen, The Little Mermaid

Jimmy received a parrot for Christmas.  The parrot was fully grown, with a very bad attitude and even worse vocabulary.

Jimmy tried to change the bird’s attitude by constantly saying polite words, playing soft music, anything that he could think of.

Nothing worked.  He yelled at the bird, and the bird got worse.  He shook the bird, and the bird got even more rude.  Finally, in a moment of desperation, Jimmy put the parrot in the freezer.

For a few moments he heard the bird squawking, kicking, and screaming.  Then, suddenly, there was absolute quiet.  Jimmy was frightened that he might have actually hurt the bird and quickly opened the freezer door.

The parrot calmly stepped out onto Jimmy’s extended arm and said, “I’m sorry that I offended you with my language and my actions, and I ask your forgiveness.  I will endeavor to correct my behavior.”

Jimmy was astounded at the change in the bird’s attitude and was about to ask what had changed him, when the parrot continued, “May I ask what the chicken did?”

6. Knowledge attends to and focuses on realities as things, tending to analyze, to take apart.

Wisdom attends to and examines realities as personal, inclining to synthesize, to view and embrace wholes.

A hundred love-letters are probably not worth a dollar
But one love-letter may be worth more than a hundred dollars.


A lawyer was questioning a farmer about an accident.  The lawyer said to the farmer, “Tell me what happened right after the accident, when you reportedly said, ‘I feel fine!'”  The farmer then began to speak, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”

At this the lawyer interrupted, saying, “Please answer my question.  Didn’t you say you felt fine immediately following the accident?”  Turning to the judge, the lawyer asked taht the witness be instructed to answer the question.

The judge looked at the farmer and said, “Please answer the question.”  The farmer began again, “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.”

The lawyer interrupted once again.  “Your Honor, please instruct the witness to answer my question.”  The judge looked at the lawyer and then at the farmer and then back to the lawyer and said, “Let’s just allow the witness to tell his story.”

The farmer began once again.  “Me and my cow Bessie were driving down the road.  When we crossed the intersection, this big trust hit us broadside.  I flew out of our truck in one direction and and Bessie flew out in the other.  I regained consciousness just as the highway patrol officer arrived.  He went over, looked at poor Bessie lying there on the road, then he came over and told me she was injured and in pretty bad shape.  Then he went back to Bessie, pulled out his gun, and shot her dead.  He then came back to me and asked me how I felt.  I said, ‘I feel fine.'”

Rabbi Israel Salanter was very scrupulous in his observance of all the six hundred and thirteen precepts prescribed by the religious code.  It was his custom whenever the Passover holidays came around, to personally supervise the making of matzos in his town.  He wished to make sure that it was done according to the time-honored ritual regulations.

On one such occasion, when he was confined by illness, his disciples volunteered to supervise the baking of the matzos.

“Instruct us, Rabbi,” they said.  “Tell us the most important thing we have to watch out for.”

“My sons, see that the women who bake the matzos are well paid,” was Rabbi Israel’s brief reply.

7. Knowledge locates human identity and uniqueness in the capacity to think.

Wisdom locates human identity and uniqueness in the capacity to love.

while you and i have lips and voices which
are for kissing and to sing with
who cares if some oneeyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure Spring with!

E. E. Cummings

Buddha was once threatened with death by a bandit called Angulimala.

“Then please fulfill my dying wish,” said Buddha.  “Cut off the branch of that tree.”

One slash of the sword, and it was done!  “What now?” asked the bandit.

“Put it back again,” said Buddha.

The bandit laughed.  “You must be crazy to think that anyone can do that.”

“On the contrary, it is you who are crazy to think that you are mighty because you can wound and destroy.  That is the task of children.  The mighty know ho to create and heal.”

8. Knowledge insists on the separation of “fact” and “value,” carefully distinguishing between data and interpretations.

Wisdom insists that “What can I know?” and “How shall I live?” are not totally unrelated questions – one reason for its reliance on stories.

The comic strip For Better or For Worse is about family life, a mother and dad and two kids.  In one early episode, the first three panels show the mother tossing and turning in her bed, worrying about her ten-year-old son, Michael.  She says, “Are we too tough on Michael?  Are we not tough enough?  Do we give in too often?  Too seldom?  Do we listen?  Do we understand?  Maybe I nag too much.  Am I a good parent?  Where are the answers?  How does one know what to do?”

In the last panel, we see Michael lying awake in his bed saying, “trouble with grownups is they think they know everything.”

Few people know how much you have to know
in order to know how little you know.
(Walter Ong)

On the first day of school, a teacher asked her class, “Who here is a Mets fan?”

Every student knew that she loved the Mets, so they all replied by raising their hands, except for one girl, Rosie.

The teacher asked, “Who do you like, little girl?”

Rosie replied, “I’m a Yankees fan and I hate the Mets.”

The teacher asked why and Rosie told her that her parents were Yankees fans, so she was, too.

The teacher said to the class, “So if Rosie’s parents were idiots, what would that make her?”

Rosie chimed in, “A Mets fan!”

9. Knowledge searches out and is fascinated with “the new.”

Wisdom assumes the connectedness of reality, encouraging mindfulness of “the old”; it tends to prefer that which has endured the test of time.

A young man had just gotten his driving permit.  He asked his father, who was a rabbi, if they could discuss his use of the family car.  His father took him into his study and said: “I’ll make a deal with you.  You bring your grades up, study your Talmud a little, get your hair cut, and then we’ll talk about it.”

After about a month, the boy came back and again asked his father if they could discuss his use of the car.  They again went into the father’s study, where the father said: “Son, I’ve been very proud of you.  You have brought your grades up, you’ve studied the Talmud diligently, but you didn’t get your hair cut.”

The young man waited a moment and then replied: “You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that.  You know Samson had long hair, Moses had long hair, Noah had long hair, and even Jesus had long hair.”

The rabbi said, “Yes, and they walked everywhere they went.”

Upon entering a little country store, the stranger noticed a sign reading, DANGER!  BEWARE OF DOG! posted on the door.

Inside he noticed a harmless old hound dog asleep  on the floor near the cash register. He asked the store’s owner, “Is that the dog folks are supposed to beware of?”

“Yep,” the proprietor answered.  “That’s him.”

The stranger couldn’t help being amused.  That certainly doesn’t look like a dangerous dog to me.”  He chuckled.  “Why in the world did you decide to post that sign?”

“Because,” the owner replied, “before I posted that sign, people kept tripping over him.”

10. Knowledge accepts only what has been (or can be) in some sense proven.

Wisdom acknowledges the possibility of the existence of that which escapes strict proof, holding that faith in the existence of certain realities has to precede the ability to see their operation.

“Prove that you love me” = “Prove you are sane”;
the very effort to do so destroys that which cannot be objectified.

A couple of Alabama hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground.  He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are rolled back in his head.

The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls 911.  He gasps to the operator, “My friend is dead!  What can I do?”

The operator, in a calm soothing voice, says, “Just take it easy.  I can help.  First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”

There is a long silence, then a shot is heard. . . .

The hunter says, “Okay, now what?”

“Will this be on the test”  “Will there be a test?”  That depends. . . but in the meantime. . . some final questions for further thought about knowledge and wisdom:

Knowledge or Wisdom: Which is more easily faked?

Despite all our technical and technological adeptness, the reality that almost any one individual can readily command vastly more knowledge and incredibly greater force than any ancient royal court or army, are we really better prepared to face death than peoples of earlier times?

What about facing life?

Knowledge and wisdom seem to be but one of several “both/and” realities at the core of human being, of be-ing human.  Yet the human story hints a consistent pattern of demands or assumptions (which are more dangerous?) that these realities are or be either-or.  Why?  And so what?

In general, it seems, our interest and expertise focus on the knowledge of our own culture, on the wisdom of foreign and strange cultures.  We tend to know and attend most to their art, literature, religion.  That generalization, if valid, is an item of knowledge.  What wisdom might it suggest?

Hoh Elder Leila Fisher speaks:

“Did you ever wonder how wisdom comes?  There was a man, a postman here on the reservation, who heard some of the Elders talking about receiving objects that bring great power.  He didn’t know much about such things, but he thought to himself that it would be a wonderful thing if he could receive such an object which can only be bestowed by the Creator.  In particular, he heard from the Elders that the highest such object a person can receive is an eagle feather.  He decided that was the one for him.  If he could just receive an eagle feather, he would have all the power and wisdom and prestige he desires.

“But he knew he couldn’t buy one and he couldn’t ask anyone to give him one.  It just had to come to him somehow by the Creator’s will.

“Day after day he went around looking for an eagle feather.  He figured one would come his way if he just kept his eyes open.  It got so he thought of nothing else.  That eagle feather occupied his thoughts from sunup to sundown.  Weeks passed, then months, then years.  Every day the postman did his rounds, always looking for that eagle feather, looking as hard as he could.  He paid no attention to his family or friends.  He just kept his mind fixed on that eagle feather.  But it never seemed to come.  He started to grow old, but still no feather.  Finally, he came to realize that no matter how hard he looked, he was no closer to getting the feather than he had been the day he started.

“One day he took a break by the side of the road.  He got out of his little jeep mail-carrier and had a talk with the Creator.  He said, ‘I’m so tired of looking for that eagle feather.  Maybe I’m not supposed to get one.  I’ve spent all my life thinking about that feather.  I’ve hardly given a thought to my family and friends.  All I cared about was the feather, and now life has just about passed me by.  I’ve missed out on a lot of good things.  Well, I’m giving up the search.  I’m going to stop looking for that feather and start living.  Maybe I have time enough left to make it up to my family and friends.  Forgive me for the way I have conducted my life.”

“Then and only then a great peace came into him.  He suddenly felt better inside than he had in all these years.  Just as he finished his talk with the Creator and started getting back in his jeep, he was surprised by a shadow passing over him.  Holding his hands over his eyes, he looked up into the sky and saw, high above, a great bird flying over.  Almost instantly it disappeared.  Then he saw something floating down ever so lightly on the breeze – a beautiful tail feather.  It was his eagle feather!  He realized that the feather had come not a single moment before he had stopped searching and made his peace with the Creator.

“He finally learned that wisdom comes only when you stop looking for it and start truly living the life the Creator intended for you.

“That postman is still alive and he’s a changed person.  People come to him for wisdom now and he shares everything he knows.  Even though now he has the power and the prestige he searched for, he no longer cares about such things.  He’s concerned about others, not himself.

“So now you know how wisdom comes.”


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